Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel
Anthony McClary said the sense of community he and his friends once felt on the Village waterfront is “like disco it ain’t coming back.”
Old friends find it’s a whole new world on new pier
By Lucas Mann
The crowd on the Christopher St. Pier was a young one on a recent Thursday afternoon. It was a nice day and kids lounged and laughed all over the pier’s grass lawn and benches.
In the middle of it all sat a group of old friends. Anthony McClary, Luis Rodriguez and Cocoa Chanel it’s her “ball name,” and yes the spelling with an “A” is intentional first met on the pier a long time ago. Luis and Cocoa, who identifies as a transgender woman, fell in love there. According to Anthony, the relationship began and was “consummated” on the pier on the same day. Behind them, another friend talked on a cell phone and looked after her mother, whom everyone called Miss Karen.
Though 45, Cocoa looked far too young to be remembering back three decades. With few wrinkles and a pristine, vintage James Brown hairdo, she pulled off her gold mesh tank top to reveal a trim figure. Twenty-nine years ago, she showed up in Greenwich Village as a runaway.
“I was from Boston,” she said, “and I ran away to New York to be a writer, but I ended up homeless on the street.” She remembered a Christopher St. that, despite the danger and her own poverty, was comforting. “I was very fortunate,” she maintained. “Like she said [pointing at Anthony], it was a dysfunctional family down here. I met a street mother, Miss Marshall P. Johnson, who introduced me to my friend, who was one of the first gay writers at the Village Voice, Randy Wicker. Well, he owned a lighting store for 29 years on Christopher and Hudson. He reached out to me when I was trying to get something to eat and offered me a job. I worked for him for 17 years.”
Cocoa also remembered Randy Wicker and others like him helping people during the first frightening years of the AIDS epidemic.
“He was one of the first to have people from Bailey House, with AIDS, come down and work in the shops,” she said. “They knew they were dying and they knew that the area was changing, but he let them have a little dignity about themselves.”
A few years ago, Wicker having remade himself into a cloning advocate closed his store and moved to New Jersey.
That change in the neighborhood that Cocoa spoke of was now in many ways disheartening to them as they looked around the well-tended grass on the new pier.
Cocoa Chanel Rodriguez thinks a plaque should be dedicated in honor of Miss Marshall P. Johnson, whom Rodriguez called “the mother of the Stonewall riots.”
Anthony, a hairdresser, looked more up to date than Cocoa, with Timberland boots, a baggy designer T-shirt and a mane of dreadlocks pulled off his face and tied in the back. But he, too, remembered a spirit from the old days that he did not see around anymore.
“It was honor amongst thieves,” he said. “The sense of community here was a whole lot stronger. But what you have to understand is times have changed. The AIDS epidemic and the drug epidemic changed people’s sense of trust. Before people were worried about crack and AIDS, they would give you a job at a pizzeria, they would see you on the street and say, ‘You want a job?’ Now, people know if you did seven months on Rikers Island for shoplifting and they won’t hire you, even though you aren’t going to steal from your boss…. But, yeah, you have gone to Bloomingdale’s and lifted a dress for the girls to wear to a ball.”
“The sense of community is starting to come back here,” Cocoa interjected, nodding her head at the groups of kids hanging out on benches, “but very slowly. I mean, 10 years ago, you would see an old lady you recognized on the street, help her take her groceries in, and she’d give you some money to eat. That’s definitely not happening anymore.”
“People who used to live in the Village…I mean, everybody had been in their spot for years,” Anthony continued. “But now? Look at this building over here,” he said, pointing to the one of the new, all-glass, Richard Meier condominium towers. “We used to shing-a-ling in the building that used to be there. We would party in there. Prostitutes from 27th St. used to come work there and nobody bothered them. We had our own community, but we were united. It was us against the world.”
For most of the conversation, Luis had not spoken. A slight, calm man, with pale blue eyes and a raspy voice barely audible over his boisterous friends, he was content to listen to his partner talk about the old days, but here he threw in his own story.
“It’s like Cocoa told me a long time ago,” he said. “When you’re in the gay community you have to make your own family. Before I met Cocoa, I had no mother, I had no father, I had siblings but I didn’t know them. But I have family now, through Cocoa and all these people. I have four children they’re not biological children, but they’re my children.”
Asked if they thought the uninhibited-yet-supportive community of old could ever fully return to the Christopher St. Pier, all three spoke at once. They all had the same opinion: Probably not.
“It’s like disco, it ain’t coming back,” Anthony said. “If it comes back, it will be in 40 years, when the people in those condos over there are old and settled and are not caught up in the whole ‘I made 300 grand last year and you’re a hairstylist’ thing. Before, people had really lived here for 40 years and it was a community. I don’t know if that sense of community could come back because the Village, it’s lost its…it’s not humble anymore.”
Anthony and Cocoa insisted that they didn’t want to totally dismiss the niceties that renovated piers (and, in many ways, a renovated neighborhood) provide. They acknowledged that the life they led was tough and dangerous.
“You gotta acknowledge that there’s some good things around now, too,” Cocoa said. “It’s safe here and, look, Luis and I can get married nowadays. For me, it’s always been that I’m glad we are alive and can come back here.” She held Luis’s hand. “We made it through the AIDS epidemic, we made it through the crack epidemic…. We buried a lot of friends.”
The conversation turned quieter as the friends recalled the bodies they had seen pulled out of the river, not 20 yards from where they sat. The person that Cocoa called “my gay mother” was pulled out of the river, as well as Miss Polley, a “white, Spanish child with the most beautiful green eyes you’ve ever seen.” Anthony vividly described seeing a corpse lying on the pier, being eaten by rats. And then there were the people with no place else to go living in the road-salt piles that used to be along the river and making the daily trek to the soup kitchen for food.
“But we all went together,” Cocoa reminded everyone. “We’d all march up to 28th St. to eat as a group. Because we were family. We were a family then.”
That Thursday afternoon, in fact, was something of a family reunion. Their visits to the pier had become far less frequent than they used to be. There was a sense of nostalgia and genuine amusement as they looked around at what they called the “new youth” that come to a place that they once called home and now barely recognized.
“I don’t have a problem with the park police, because I think kids around now tend to be a little destructive,” Anthony said. “I mean, they have more to destroy. We just had a couple of benches.”
“Oh, come on, we didn’t even have benches,” Cocoa yelled. “There was just a highway and a bridge.”
Anthony continued: “At the end of this pier, there was an empty warehouse, where the girls just used to…it was crazy. All kinds of orgies.” In stark contrast to the old warehouse with broken floors and orgies of the ’80s, Cocoa and Luis recalled being on the pier during last year’s Fourth of July and seeing a couple with a bottle of wine have it confiscated and poured into the river. Anthony maintained that there was a sign saying “No Alcohol” and that public drinking is illegal. But Cocoa and Luis couldn’t agree with a place that had once been so wild becoming so “Disneyland.”
Still, on that sunny afternoon, the prevailing feeling among the old guard of the Christopher St. Pier was not bitterness. It was more like relief. They had seen every crazy thing that the pier of the ’80s had to offer, and dangerously toed the line with both crack and AIDS, yet they had survived to see, for better or worse, the transformation of what was once their home. Asked what he would change about the new pier, Anthony laughed.
“I would put a little crazy warehouse in the back there, you know what I’m saying?” he said. “But with air conditioning.”
Cocoa was more serious.
“I would like to have a plaque for Miss Marshall P. Johnson,” she said quietly. “She was the mother of the Stonewall riots. The legend says that she threw the first shoe, but she was more than that. She was a prostitute and an Andy Warhol model, and an actor in the Hot Peaches Theater Group. She took a child from out of town and she would show you how to survive out here. She would panhandle, but she would give you her last dollar if you were hungry. She should be commemorated.”
The group continued to talk about Miss Marshall P. Johnson and about the way they used to live. Cocoa sat on Luis’s lap and they held hands, while everybody waved goodbye to Miss Karen. It had been 30 years that they had sat on this pier and now they were watching a new crop of kids experience Christopher St.
Cocoa leaned down to give Luis a kiss. Having met homeless and desperate, they were, in their view, married and could look back on their lives instead of worrying about survival. For a moment, as they kissed, you could see them, 29 years ago, on a pier with a few benches and a broken-down warehouse at the back.
To The Editor: